HL Deb 20 January 1999 vol 596 cc577-9

2.50 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have in mind any change to the system for lay visiting to police stations to satisfy the public that those in custody are being treated fairly.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, lay visiting is a fine example of community involvement in local policing. There are no proposals to change the important independent role that lay visitors play as part of the range of safeguards and protections for people in police custody. I would like to take this opportunity to wish the National Association for Lay Visiting every success. Its inaugural National Lay Visiting Awareness Day was launched this morning by my colleague Kate Hoey.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. Is he aware that from time to time there are press reports which are critical of both police stations and police officers in the course of their duty? Is my noble friend satisfied that the present system cannot be improved by providing national coverage to ensure that a fine service is available uniformly across the country? In particular, is he satisfied that there is a uniform standard of achievement before someone is qualified to be a lay visitor?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely important point about uniformity and the achievement of national standards. Last month an admirable Home Office research study entitled Lay Visiting to Police Stations was published. That is out for consultation with everyone who wishes to be involved, not least the national association that does such admirably good work.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, can the Minister do his best to ensure that with the increasing public awareness to which he has just referred the public will get the whole picture following reports of lay visitors, including the great deal that our police have to put up with from aggressive and violent people, drunks and drug-addicts in order that the rest of us should be protected?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I sympathise with the police in having to deal with aggressive behaviour. I believe that lay visitors are an extremely important public safeguard not only for those in police custody but for the honourable, honest policemen in our society who are in the overwhelming majority.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, speaking as the mother of someone who was a lay visitor for many years in her twenties, can the Minister tell the House the minimum age at which someone can become a lay visitor and if there is any age ceiling? Further, is there a time limit? As I understood it, a person could serve for only a fixed number of years.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not have those details but I shall research them. Certainly they will be part of the consultative process. I believe—I do not know—that 18 is the youngest age. I do not know whether there is a retirement age, although I am informed that that is becoming the vogue in various quarters. I shall research the matter and answer fully the question posed by the noble Baroness and place a copy in the Library.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that there is no shortage in any of the areas covered by the lay visiting scheme? I understand that there is a geographical spread. Inevitably, some areas will be well supported and others not. I am sure that those outside the House will be enormously grateful for the kind words that have been said about the system. Can special attention be paid to making clear to those outside the House that the purpose of the lay visitor is to reassure the public as much as to make sure that the police and Home Office do their job?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend is right. One tends to have greater coverage in built-up urban areas. Rural areas are less well served which is probably an obvious consequence of the fact that police stations tend to be much more remotely situated in such areas. That is certainly an aspect that is contained in the Home Office research study which was published in December 1998 and will undoubtedly be part of the discussions that will take place in the next month or two.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, is there any information to indicate that where there is a lay visiting scheme in police stations those stations are run differently from or better than those where there is no such scheme?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not believe that that kind of specific conclusion can be drawn. The importance of the scheme is that it is voluntary and entirely separate from the Police Service and Home Office. Its key characteristic is that police officers and police stations do not know when visits are likely to occur. I do not believe it can be said scientifically that where a scheme works well the police station is necessarily run better. It is a very important safeguard for the public and police alike.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that an adequate number of persons belonging to ethnic minorities are appointed as lay visitors, particularly in those areas where the population predominantly comprises minorities?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am not. That is an aspect which will be discussed in the next month or two following the publication of the report. It is very important that there should be full representation by ethnic minority, religious background and gender for those who undertake this important work.

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